Not any more

Junior Hockey Tournament a Major Happening in Buffalo

In Canada on January 4, 2011 at 20:02

But now the transformation is complete. Buffalo is full of Canadians, here to join this city’s already hockey-crazed populace for the world junior tournament, and it is a perfect storm. The tournament, an international sports event that annually draws Canada’s biggest television audience, starts Sunday in the city with America’s highest annual television ratings for hockey.

“People in the States don’t understand what this means to Canada, but I think they’re going to find out,” said Larry Quinn, the managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres, whose HSBC Arena is the main site of the tournament, which opens Sunday and runs through Jan 5. “To them, it’s like the N.C.A.A. basketball Final Four is to Americans.”

Some 320,000 tickets have been sold for the 31 games of the I.I.H.F. World U20 Championship, as the tournament is officially called. About 63 percent have gone to Canadians, according to Tom Ahern, director of arena services for the Sabres, who are handling the tournament logistics and ticket sales.

An estimated 11,000 hotel rooms have been booked in the region over the course of the tournament, a big rise over usual occupancy levels. More than a quarter of the rooms were booked by teams and delegations from the 10 participating countries, including the defending champion Americans and the 15-time champion Canadians.

Buffalo and Niagara University in Lewiston, N.Y., are the hosts for the tournament. It is only the fifth time in the 35-year history of the world juniors that the United States has played host, after various sites in Minnesota in 1982; Anchorage, in 1989; Boston in 1996; and Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn., in 2005.

But the geography and culture of Buffalo make this edition of the world juniors different.

“There’s no question about it,” said Quinn, responding to the idea that Buffalo is in many ways a half-Canadian city.

“One of the ways we’ve made this N.H.L. franchise work is to pretend there isn’t a border,” he said, referring to the Sabres’ marketing outreaches to southern Ontario, a far more prosperous neighboring region that accounts for about 15 percent to 20 percent of the club’s business.

“Of course there are cultural and perceptual differences and different cable TV regulations that prevent us from having it seamless,” he said. “But with a tournament like this, it’s the single biggest event in Buffalo history that can break down that border. More than anything we’ve ever done, this works toward our vision of this as one region.”

The Buffalo area has been producing N.H.L.-level players for about 30 years, including the Stanley Cup winners Patrick Kane, Brooks Orpik and Todd Marchant. And now local fans are excited at the prospect of witnessing a competition that has unveiled such stars as Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros, Jaromir Jagr and Peter Forsberg, who holds most of the single-tournament scoring records.

“It’s a big thing for the people here — this is definitely a hockey city,” said Digger Kennedy, 51, who played for South Park High School here in the ’70s and whose son, Tim, played for the Sabres and is now with the Rangers’ A.H.L. farm team in Hartford. “And with all the Canadians coming in for this, it’s going to be great.”

The Canadian influence on Buffalo hockey history is deep, of course. When the Sabres came into existence in 1970, their coach and general manager was Punch Imlach, who had coached and managed the Toronto Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups.

But perhaps surprisingly, Buffalo has exerted its own profound influence on Canadian hockey history.

As a boy in the early ’70s Wayne Gretzky would sit in his living room in Brantford, Ontario, watching his favorite player, the slick-skating Sabres center Gil Perreault, on Buffalo television. Gretzky idolized Perreault and vowed to be as creative a player — a decision that had huge implications for Canada and hockey.

Another important Canadian figure, the Hall of Fame defenseman Tim Horton, spent his last two seasons as a Sabre. Still playing at 44 and making the 90-mile drive to Buffalo late at night after the Sabres had played in Toronto, he died in a car wreck about halfway between the cities. People in Buffalo and Toronto alike, if they are old enough, can remember the eerie feeling the next morning of hearing the jingle for Horton’s chain of doughnut shops still playing on the radio.

The world junior final on Jan. 5 is expected to pit Canada against the United States.

Whether celebrating or drowning their sorrows afterward, Canadian fans here will once again feel right at home, because the best-selling beer in Buffalo is not Budweiser or Miller. It has long been Labatt’s.

It’s ok..really like Buffalo. You can have Hamilton in return


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